Sisyphus by Hugh Roberts
AFTER THE CEREMONY, it didn’t take long for us to light up a spliff. Cole had five rolled, so in true blue Vermont fashion we round-housed two of the bones on the ride down to the reception. Riding the gondola from the top of the mountain down, it felt right that we three amigos, together for the first time in four years, would celebrate with the vice that had brought us so close over a decade ago. It was the perfect beginning to a buddy flick. Tonight we’d party like Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in “Swingers.” Tonight, we were big fucking bears, baby.
We careened down the hill, the four of us sitting two v. two on the old carpeted benches. The open windows, like portholes in a flying submarine, allowed the muggy air to swirl and mix with the sweet smell of tobacco and pot. Wet air, that was something I didn’t miss living out in LA. I was moved only by the immense expanse of green that lay before my eyes. Rolling hills for miles and miles in every direction and all of it green, a nice hiatus from the sprawl of starter homes littering the greater Los Angeles area. In the twenty-four hours since I’d gotten off the plane, I’d been reminded at every turn why I had flown across the country in the first place.
On his third hit, the groom, Dan, his cheeks rosy and permanently chapped from run after run, year after year, down the very mountain we descended now, held the spliff like the stem of a champagne flute and moved to toast us.
“To you fuckers, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of buds to give me away.” He welcomed another hit, and with it still in his lungs he exhaled and coughed. ”Shitttttt, I thought I was gonna die up there.”
“You just needed a spliffy,” Cole chimed in, his big grin causing Dan to mirror it.
As was tradition, an echo of “Spliffaaay” rained down from Cole and I, shadowed by simple laughter. The only one of us not to lend his voice to our chant was Ben, the best man and Dan’s younger brother.
Dan ground my ribs with his elbow and passed the spliff. I took a long drag for show, as though to convince them that LA had made me more powerful than ever before. In reality, I hadn’t been smoking in the past year; it was a bit too difficult to learn endless pages of medical jargon with a foggy brain. The pressure behind my eyes released and as I exhaled, the vertebrae in my neck felt lighter. My head became clumsy, lolling backwards and I smiled at that.
Dan tittered his girlish titter, “Look at Hollywood! So relaxed. So Zen. So Cali.”
Cole and Dan busted up laughing. It was striking how they’d come to look and act so similar in the years I’d been absent. Both now sported shaggy hair, an extra thirty pounds and sun burnt necks from long days cleaning pools and manicuring golf courses. Neither had finished college and part of me envied their small-town existence. Work, smoke, sleep, repeat.
“I’m not… don’t call me that!” I retorted, secretly loving it, while releasing my second hit soundly into Dan’s eyes. “Dick Boy.”
He winced and shot back, “Ass Hat.”
I passed the spliff to Ben, who passed it over to Cole, holding it at arm’s length, as though it could turn into a snake and bite him. I hadn’t seen Little Benny in over 10 years, and he looked exactly the same, like one of those miniature dinosaurs you put in water that keeps its shape but grows to ten times its size. He’d always had a large head, and we assumed he’d eventually grow into it, he hadn’t. Hard to believe that at 24, he was working at an investment firm in Boston with plans to get his MBA at Stanford. He should have been an actor. Actors with big heads do well.
I studied him from the corner of my eye. He was smiling a contented smile. As one of the few to get away, did he feel the same apathy towards our hometown of Stowe, Vermont? We’d both left in our first years of high school, wanting to find something more than the small tourist town had to offer. After those first few years at boarding school, I’d never been able to interact the same with these friends. Did he look down on those that had stayed the same, as I did? Did he crave their adoration too?
As the gondola began to slow, we grabbed our belongings and prepared to disembark. The doors slid open and we clambered out one by one, sheepishly smiling at the attendant as we straightened our matching khaki linen suits. This morning, five beers back, we had looked uniformly presentable in these suits, but now each man had made his personal alterations – untucking shirts, discarding vests, rolling sleeves.
Earlier in the day, the groom’s mother had begged me, as the “responsible” one, to make sure that everyone was in their suits and sober at 1 PM to ascend the mountain in time to usher both families to their seats. At least I’d taken care of the suits. We were hard-drinking men-children who didn’t like to be told what to do, especially by those same parents who had done so for years before our great escape to the nation’s universities.
We walked from the base of the gondola to the grand hall in the newly constructed monstrosity known to would-be ski bums as the Stowe Mountain Lodge. I marveled at the polish of the great hall that had ended my childhood. 50-foot ceilings were held up by ornately hand-carved pillars and kept out the muggy September air with huge panes of glass, stacked one on top of the other. It was a temple built with big business money. Once upon a time, my parents had owned and operated a hotel and restaurant down in the village. This lodge had been built during the recession and had pushed many small operations out of business and out of town. My parents lost their business, their home and their marriage in a matter of months. By the time they declared bankruptcy, I was already in Los Angeles, pursuing my dreams of being the next Ed Norton or Will Ferrell or Cary Grant or whatever the business would let me be. After the divorce, I’d had no reason to return until now, for the wedding of my childhood best friend.
“Jesus,” I muttered, as Cole ambled towards me.
“This place is fucking ridiculous.”
“Shit, that’s right… you haven’t been in here. Pretty slick, right?
“I guess…” I scanned the grand hall. “Are any of the bridesmaids single?” I was looking for any potential conquest fit to play the night’s love interest- anyone to further the plot. I hope they play “Shout”, I thought to myself, remembering the montage from Wedding Crashers. Cole nudged me hard with his shoulder.
“Let’s get a beer.”
After checking with a few guests that it was, in fact, an open bar we all but sprinted for it. In your twenties, you can beeline to the bar and it isn’t seen as a problem yet. I nicked Cole’s ankle with the tip of my patent leather shoe tripping him up. I laughed wildly, not at all concerned about coming off stoned. Tonight, this temple was ours. I sidled up and threw my arm around Cole. The brunette behind the bar was on her phone, her back to us.
“’Scuse me,” I murmured, not wanting to be rude to the gatekeeper of what I intended to be a fun-filled, alcohol-fueled night. Turning on the charm to combat the slothful effects of the spliff, I tried again “Ma’am? Could we get a couple Heady Toppers for a couple weary groomsmen?”
She turned sharply and I instantly recognized her: Melissa McGovern. Funny and kind, she had been one of the better-looking girls from our graduating class.
Of all the gin joints in all the world… it made perfect sense that I would see her here. It was clearly a sign. She had been my first kiss, after all, a sneaky peck during a screening of Rush Hour. She’d been my first “girl friend” back in seventh grade. I had pined over her when she left me for an older guy who had been better at sports. Standing before us at the bar, however, I saw that her teeth were faintly discolored from cigarettes and infrequent cleanings, her cheeks reddened from long days skiing and longer nights drinking. She wore copious makeup in a vain struggle to regain a semblance of what I now assumed had been her glory days. She squealed and I smiled.
“Hugh? Wow. What are you doing here?” She moved to hug me over the bar and I helped her along by reaching over and giving her a pat on the back, the quintessential awkward ass-out hug. Tickling her ribs, I inhaled. She smelled exactly as she did that night at the theatre. It was that kind of clean, comforting bubble that some girls have, seemingly effortless. It was nice. “I mean, I know you’re here for Dan’s wedding… but I didn’t think that you’d be here, Hugh. Are you still out in LA?” she stammered, staring at me as though she couldn’t make sense of my presence in her town. I loved it. She went about getting the beers, but held her eyes on me. “I was just thinking about you, actually. I saw you on that show! You’re like… famous now.”
“Haha, Jesus… NO.” Seriously loving it. “I’m just… looking for the next job like anybody else. When did you move back? I thought you were in Florida?”
“I was for a while, but I missed my mom and my sister. Plus, it’s just so much nicer here. So green! Fort Lauderdale is an… acquired taste. Like, if you love hookers and meth, then its perfect…” Still funny. Good. “I love LA though! I follow you on Instagram! You have like a zillion followers. Looks like you’re doing great!”
“LA… is great. Yeah, you look great. ” She smiled and I nodded. “What does a girl like you do in a town like this?”
“Well… I work here, at the mountain, and I help my mom out at the shop…” A beat, as the conversation lulled. “And… I see Allison and Alexis from time to time. ”
Allison and Alexis, what were they up to tonight? Did the three of them watch the show together? Would tonight end like the scene between Lancelot and the virginal sisters of Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Would there be a spanking?
“Yeah, so when’s the next movie? Can I be your date to the red carpet thing?” She was trying to be playful and joking, but who knows, maybe there would be a spanking…
“Haha… I’ll have to get back to you on that, sort of in a holding pattern now.” As it turns out, there’s no graceful way to tell your childhood girlfriend that you’re not what you appear and you’re worried that you’ll never work again.
Cole sighed and said, “He’s just being modest. He’s killing it.” He put his hand on the back of my neck and pressed his thumb and index finger to his temple, hard. His bloodshot eyes locked on mine, “I foresee an Oscar in the coming years.”
“Yeah, maybe.” I curtly removed his hand from my neck. “Okay, can we take a shot please? And stop this? It’s just me. Same guy as always. Can you take a shot with us?”
Melissa grinned and looked to her right at a portly man of about fifty in the same uniform. He had a clipboard and an earpiece-the floor manager.
“I can’t have a shot… noowwww” she purred, feeling it. She was into it. “But I can meet you after the reception. At the Matterhorn?”
I looked over at the boss and then back to Melissa. Her hazel eyes, just as mischievous as the day we’d met over fifteen years ago. I loved the way she looked at me now. She was performing for me. Such a treat to step out of LA and have someone else put on a show. I loved that. I wanted more of it. She was locked in.
“Alright,” I crooned in reply. “ We’ll see you at two.”
“Alright, Mr. Actor Man. I’ll see you then. These are on the house.”
She gave me a seductive wink before turning away to assist the mother of the bride, no doubt interested in a glass of bubbly wine. After all, it was a celebration – a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. I dropped a ten I couldn’t afford on the bar.
“Um… she knows it’s an open bar, right?”
“Yeah. That was the joke, dumbass. Want a cigarette?” I asked, excited by the promise of a one-night romance with a long lost flame. Tonight I’d finish the job thirteen-year-old Ross had dreamed of in that movie theatre so many years ago. How cinematic this night had become. How perfect.
“No, but I do want a spliff. Cigarettes are gross, dude. Shit’ll kill you. Lets go round the back.”
“You are aware that there’s tobacco in a spliff, right?”
“Spliffayyyyyy!” And that was that.
We took our beers and lazily made our way out onto the smoking patio. The sun had set and the patio was lit by three large steel braziers, where guests were huddling around them for warmth, their shadows playing on the snowless ski trails laying in wait for winter behind the lodge. The smell of burning wood and the heat reminded me of the countless bonfires we’d had as kids. I was truly enjoying these swells of nostalgia that rose up from nowhere and enveloped me. They were free of charge, but worth much more. Forget about the rent check and the next job, at least for a few seconds. I followed Cole around the corner and we ducked into a darkened alcove. As Cole lit the spliff, the small flame, duplicated, danced in the lenses of his glasses.
“She’s a lesbian now.” Cole’s voice pulled me back.
“Melissa. She’s dating some woman my mom’s age, a widower, from Virginia. Been together for a couple years. I think that’s the real reason she moved back. She waits tables at The Stoweflake.”
“Really? Where’d you hear that?”
It didn’t make sense. She had definitely been making eyes at me. She’d winked at me, right? Could it be that she had really just been interested in just talking with me tonight? At 2 AM? I was in town for one night and she just wanted to reminisce. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more poetic if we met up and ran away for the night? Fucked like teenagers in the woods by the little river and watched the sun come up together. Sharing a blanket we found in the back of her Subaru we would talk about how we’d always wanted to do this to each other, to make each other feel good, to feel whole. She’d tell me how impressed she was with everything that I had going on in Los Angeles and how she could never just move across the country like that. She would tell me that I was brave and special – that I was doing the right things with my life. She’d tell me with a giggle how she’d pleasured herself to my episode of Private Practice. How all the girls in town had. How she also thought that I’d get that Oscar someday soon. How it was only a matter of time until the world saw how special I was.
Cole hit the spliff and strained to say, “Just common knowledge, man. Another one bites the dust.”
“That’s good for her.” Another one bites the dust? What a hack sentiment. It angered me that he felt he knew the world, when he’d spent all of his years here. “Are they in love?”
Cole laughed. I motioned for the spliff and he conceded it leaning back into the stone wall behind us. He ran his hand through his curly hair, straightened his glasses and looked at me.
“I don’t know… I don’t like… hang out with them. I just… see them out, give ‘em a nod. Is it weird?”
“That you don’t hang out with them?”
“No… it’s… Your first girlfriend. She dates a girl now?” He grinned like a child, “That’d be weird.”
It was weird, but not for the reason he thought. My script had been rewritten. Her actions made little sense now. The story I’d so deftly crafted in my head no longer played. I over corrected with a culturally liberal sentiment.
“Not really, I don’t think love knows gender. Love is Love. If she’s happy, that’s what matters.”
Cole peered at me doubtfully, and cocked his head.
“Real big of you, Hugh.”
“I’d like to think that if I was attracted enough to a guy that I wanted to make love with him, I’d be able to do it.”
Let me be clear, in the past, I had felt strongly towards men in my life. I never craved their bodies, but I did crave their approval. Low self-esteem coupled with an emotionally bankrupt father. It was a doozy.
Not wanting to look at him, I stared into the fire. I needed him to know that I wasn’t worried about her loving me… that I didn’t care whether she fucked me. It wasn’t about her. It was about me being bigger than her. Than them. Even if I didn’t understand the bigger picture, it was imperative that he believe I did. That I had a vision.
“I think that’s really amazing that she’s in love with a woman. Everyone’s always trying to fit us into neat little nice boxes. Gay, Straight, Republican, Democrat. It’s so limiting. I want to be the way I want to be. I want to have fun. I deserve to live.”
I pulled the spliff in, allowing the tobacco’s surging rush to wash over me and calm my nerves. I could feel his eyes on me. What the fuck was am I talking about? How’d I get so messed up? I wondered if anyone inside had any coke or better yet, Adderall. Fuck. I felt like crying or like screaming just to show him how much more alive I was. Words had failed me.
“Do you really believe that?” Cole mumbled, again running his hand through his hair, taking the spliff and expertly rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Do you really believe that love knows no gender?”
I was silent.
He lifted my chin, surprising me. Such an intimate touch was foreign from him. I looked at him and the way he studied me was almost alien. He was a deer that investigates the hunter who has him dead in his sights, seconds before he delivers the fatal tug on the trigger. Suddenly, I was very aware of how alone we were. His eyes implied a resignation.
“I… just…” He moved closer to me, and his hand landed on my bicep. The smell of cheap shampoo and hungry breath overpowered me. He squeezed my arm and pursed his lips. As he moved in to kiss me, I snapped back and instinctively recoiled.
“Wow,” I laughed, nervous and flustered. I looked down, gritted my teeth painfully, and laughed again. I could feel his embarrassment. Unable to look at him, I placed my hand on his chest and whispered, “I love you, man. I just…” I patted him gently on the chest, “I love you.”
“Hugh, I just thought that when you said… it’d be fun – ”
Shaking my head, I interrupted him, firing off non sequiturs, “It’s all good. We’re drunk, dude. It’s the way it goes. I gotta…. get a drink and… have a piss. I’ll be right back.”
Before he could answer, I was rounding the corner onto the smoking patio and slicing through the doors to the reception. I slinked past Dan and his bride, who were taking pictures with the cake. If you had told me 15 years ago that he’d be the first of us to get married, I would have told you to take a run and jump, but seeing him now, with his hand on the small of her back and that wide goofy smile of his, it made more sense than anything to me. I could move back here. I would be content. I would find someone who liked to hike and ski and smoke and drink. Yes, I deserved that. Maybe Melissa?
I turned purposefully and found her behind the bar, just where I’d left her. With the sun now fully set and the lights turned down low, she appeared as good a future ex-wife as any other, but tomorrow, the sun would rise and I knew I would resent her for not having clean enough teeth or snoring in her sleep. Like every girl before, I would be unable to see all of the good in her. We caught eyes, she smiled at me and sheepishly waved. Unable to respond in kind, I looked down and turned toward the exit. LA had ruined me for real people.
I just kept walking, bobbing and weaving my way through a myriad of faceless people I couldn’t place. I motored down a long hallway at the end of which hung a large ornate mirror in a gold frame with claws. I stopped and stared. What did I really have to show for moving from here? Friends I couldn’t really call friends. A shitty one-bedroom apartment with brown rugs and brown roaches. Girls that came and went so regularly you could set your watch by them… I closed my eyes and metered my breathing to try and shake what felt like a fifty-pound weight off my chest. After a few deep breaths, I opened my eyes to see tears rolling down my cheeks. I looked again into the glass. What a fucking pussy. Just don’t let anyone see you like this. I wiped my eyes surreptitiously and headed through the lobby, past the front desk and the bellhops and into the parking lot. I didn’t think to stop until I was midway through the maze of cars.
Alone now, surrounded by 4x4s and darkness, I finally stopped. Like a child that wanted Skittles and received Twizzlers instead, I’d thrown a fit. I looked at my phone – 10:00 – so I had eight hours until the cab would take me to the airport. I could walk back in and attempt to salvage a night that had so dramatically gone the other way. I could still go out and talk to Melissa about her life and find out who she was now, explain to Cole that I cared for him, but not in that way and wish Dan and his new bride a happy life together. The simple fact was that none of it mattered to me. It would mean them really seeing me and I wasn’t interested in that. This had all been about them seeing me. Not about me seeing them. Twizzlers held no value for me. I wanted Skittles.
I could live my life the way I truly was and have people know me or I could live the life I wanted, as an enigma – the film hero. I took a deep breath and headed back to my hotel, alone.
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